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Jesus at work: trading places

From the Sola Panel

Here’s something really interesting in Mark’s Gospel that my lovely wife Bronwyn noticed when she was reading the Bible the other day. Close to the beginning of Mark, in chapter 1, Jesus meets a man with a skin disease:

And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40)

The word ‘leper’ actually refers to people with a wide range of skin diseases, not just to people with the modern disease of leprosy. This man’s condition would have been pretty miserable. You might be aware from reading the Old Testament that he would have suffered from far more than a bad complexion and low self-esteem. He would have been a social outcast, condemned to a solitary life outside the main centres of population. That’s because his skin disease was an example of ‘uncleanliness’—a bodily condition that symbolized sin and death, and which excluded ancient Israelites from worshipping God in the temple and from associating with others. God told Moses:

The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

Jesus, however, is powerful enough to deal with this ‘uncleanliness’. He is not contaminated by touching the man with the disease; instead, he has a kind of ‘contagious cleanliness’ which heals the man:

Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:41-42).

Great stuff! But then, the story takes a slightly unexpected twist:

And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (Mark 1:43-44)

We can understand why Jesus wanted the man to show himself to the priest; after all, it was the priest’s job to pronounce people ‘clean’ once their uncleanness had left them (e.g. Lev 13:47-59). In that way, he could be restored to God’s worshipping people. It’s a bit more difficult to understand why Jesus didn’t want the man to talk about it; but we haven’t got time to go into detail about that question here. Instead, I want to show you the interesting bit that Bronwyn noticed:

But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:45)

What’s happened to Jesus as a result of this healing? He’s traded places with the diseased man! He hasn’t actually caught the disease itself—but he’s suffering in the same way that the diseased man would have suffered before he was healed. Previously, it was the diseased man who had to live outside the populated areas and stay in the lonely places by himself. But now, Jesus himself is the excluded one: excluded as a result of his own saving action.

We wondered if Mark is giving us a little hint, early in the story of Jesus’ life, of the much greater and perfect substitution that Jesus accomplishes at the end of his earthly life. By his death on the cross, Jesus came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus deliberately suffers in our place; he dies the death we deserve; he is forsaken so that sinners like you and me can be accepted, and so worship and serve God freely. Is this story of the diseased man a little foretaste of that great truth?

What do you reckon?

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